Two and a half days in the life…September 22, 2010
Since May, a fair number of constituents have asked me exactly what a Minister does. I should say immediately that the question is almost always put to me in a genuinely friendly way. Anyhow, since I’ve just got back to the constituency after a European trip, this is a summary of what I’ve been up to since Sunday.
On Sunday afternoon, I flew from Heathrow to Munich to meet up with my German counterpart Dr Werner Hoyer. We discussed various European issues over dinner and Werner gave me a quick tour of Munich before we headed for a hotel near the airport for an early departure the following morning.
First stop on Monday was Chisinau, capital of the Republic of Moldova. Moldova, like much of Eastern Europe, has a complicated history. Most of its people are ethnically Romanian but there are also large Russian and Ukrainian populations and various other smaller ethnic groups. From the Second World War until the break-up of the USSR, Moldova was a soviet republic. Moldova’s politics is delicately poised between the communists and a coalition of democratic parties (from centre-right to centre-left) which has been in government for the last year. To complicate matters further, the easternmost area of Moldova, known as Transnistria, has declared itself independent and there are Russian troops there.
Werner Hoyer and I planned a joint visit to demonstrate the support of both the British and German governments for democratic and economic reform in Moldova. We had meetings with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Deputy Foreign Minister and did a joint press conference, along with the Moldovan Foreign Minister. In all, we spent about five hours in Chisinau before flying on to Bucharest.
Romania, living next door to Moldova and with its own history of very difficult relations with Russia, is intensely concerned with events in Chisinau. But there was a lot else to discuss too. Romania is a large country in EU terms. Her population (and therefore her voting entitlement in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament is seventh in the EU, after Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Poland). She is a member of NATO, and has a large contingent of troops on the front line in southern Afghanistan. Romania’s views on support for EU enlargement, deepening the Single Market and reducing the cost of regulation for European businesses chime well with British priorities. And Romania’s knowledge of her own neighbourhood – the Balkans, Black Sea and Caucasus regions- offers some interesting perspectives on the challenges that face British interests in those parts of the world.
So we went straight from Bucharest airport to meet the Romanian Prime Minister and then on to dinner with the Foreign Minister. I stayed overnight in the British Ambasador’s residence. Breakfast on Tuesday involved a briefing from the Ambassador and his senior team, then we met up with the German team and travelled on to meetings with the President’s advisor on European policy and the two State Secretaries dealing with European affairs. We finished the joint visit with a press conference, fielding questions on Moldova, EU enlargement, immigration policies and the Roma people.
I then had a hurried sandwich at the British embassy where I was briefed on British trade and investment relations with Romania before going to the Ministry for Economic Affairs to press the case of individual British companies and to discuss commercial relations more generally. Back to the Embassy to talk to the staff (something that I always try to do when I am travelling) and then there was actually time for a 20 minute stroll around Bucharest, looking in at the English Bar where Olivia Manning set much of her Balkans Trilogy and spotting the balcony from where the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made his last attempt to rally support for his regime before it was overethrown at Christmas 1989. After further discussions with embassy staff, I recorded a lengthy online interview with a Romanian journalist and a much briefer piece to camera for my FCO video blog. The day finished with a dinner for a number of Romanian ministers, parliamentarians and senior officials.
After that, I was ready to sleep – though I could have done without the disco or rock concert (not sure which) that was going on in the neighbourhood. My Assistant Private Secretary told me that there were a lot of Guns ‘n Roses numbers but I’m afraid I’ll just have to take his word for that!
Up at 6.30 (that’s 4.30 London time) for the flight back. I’m spending the rest of today in the constituency but my office has thoughtfully provided a red box of official papers in case I get withdrawal symptoms.
It is at times pretty exhausting, especially when your schedule takes you from one meeting to the next without pause, but it is stimulating work and you do feel that, albeit in a small way, you are doing something to promote the interests of your country. And I’d like to go back to Romania sometime when I can explore the country more. The Ambassador told me about painted monasteries in Bukovina, historic villages in Transylvania and the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains – there’s a lot to see.